I remember 9/11 like it was yesterday. In fact, Sept. 11, 2001, was my 44th birthday.
I had left service at the Pentagon as general counsel of the Air Force eight months before and returned to the firm in New York City where I had practiced law—Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison. Though I usually commute in from home in New Jersey by bus or train, I drove in to Manhattan that morning because I wanted to leave work early and be home in time for a quiet birthday dinner with my family.
I still recall the crisp blue sky that early fall morning. Since then, over the last 20 years, the beauty of days in the 70s with clear blue skies and no humidity is marred in my mind by 9/11.
At just before 9 a.m. I was sitting at my desk on the 28th floor of our office building on Sixth Avenue and 51st Street. I still remember the boring, inconsequential court paper I was revising on my computer. I was in a rush because I was about to hop on the subway and head downtown for a meeting at the New York Attorney General’s office. I heard someone say, “Hey, a small plane hit the World Trade Center.”
I got up from my desk, walked next door to the corner office of my law partner Theodore Sorensen, President John F. Kennedy’s former speechwriter. Ted was not there that day, and his office had a clear view looking down Sixth Avenue at both World Trade Center towers.
I thought to myself: “That’s no small airplane.” I still recall vividly the contrast of the thick black smoke rising from the tower against the backdrop of the clear blue sky. A few minutes later I saw the second plane hit.
At some point during all this I received a frantic phone call from Mary Alford, my former assistant at the Pentagon to find out if I was OK. She was calling from her desk in the E-ring, the outer ring of the Pentagon. I told her “I’m OK Mary. I’m in midtown, the World Trade Center is downtown.” Mary was unfamiliar with New York City and did not really appreciate the difference, but I was touched by her concern. Not more than a few minutes later, American Airlines Flight 77 hit the E-ring. I tried to call her to find out if she was OK, but was unable to reach her.
Turns out she and others fled the building right after the plane hit.
The moment I will remember most is the moment the first tower collapsed. My mind could not accept what my eyes were seeing. The twin towers had been a fixture on the New York City skyline for 30 years. As a young single lawyer in the 1980s I used to bring dates to Windows on the World. As a young father in 1994, I brought my three-week old son to the observation deck. I kept waiting for the great tower to emerge from the dust. Nothing that big and permanent could just vanish in an instant, but it did.
That morning Americans were forced to reckon with the unimaginable.
Watching the tragedy unfold, I wanted to do something. I wanted to rush to Washington, D.C., and resume my old job at the Pentagon, but couldn’t. Settling for a more immediate and modest goal, I went down to the street to look for a hospital to donate blood, but given the nature of the tragedy there was little need. Most people either escaped in time or died.
Though our nation was under attack, there was nothing for me to do but go home and be with family. By the time I got back to the car I had left in the midtown garage about seven hours before, the world had changed. The day began so typical and serene. That afternoon, driving west across the George Washington Bridge, the city now felt like a war zone.
Returning to National Security Under President Obama
February 2009 was my opportunity to return to national security—now as general counsel of the entire Department of Defense. With great purpose, I helped create the Obama administration’s legal architecture for our war against Al Qaeda. I gave the legal sign off on the U.S. military’s drone strikes on multiple dangerous al Qaeda targets.
If 9/11 was my darkest day as an American, my single best as a public servant was May 1, 2011—the day we got Osama bin Laden. The day was eerily similar to 9/11 in one respect: Time seemed to move slowly. Each minute seemed like an hour as I sat in the command center in the basement of the Pentagon and waited, watched, and listened to events in Pakistan. For me, like many others, bin Laden’s death brought a feeling of closure around the events of 9/11.
Three years later, I became President Obama’s Secretary of Homeland Security—leading a department of 230,000 people that didn’t exist on 9/11. In 2016, I was present for the opening of DHS’s new office in the new One World Trade Center. I personally selected the space on the 50th floor for the secretary’s office. I showed visitors the view north, up Sixth Avenue, at the building I occupied on 9/11. I liked to tell people, and still do, that America is a strong and resilient nation that will rebuild bigger from the rubble of tragedy.
In my public life, I have visited all three 9/11 crash sites. Though I was present in New York on 9/11, and I worked at the Pentagon before and after 9/11, to me Shanksville is the most moving. The memorial there is an elegant structure in the midst of quiet farmland miles from any town or major road—a reminder of how random terrorism can be, and a reminder of the heroism of the passengers on board United 93.
It is my view, on this 20th anniversary and every anniversary, we should continue to mourn and honor the victims. With the benefit of 20 years’ hindsight, we must also learn from the experience of 9/11. We must learn the lessons of history, or be bound to repeat the mistakes of the past.
Through our relentless counterterrorism efforts over the last 20 years, al Qaeda has been decimated and degraded, no longer able to launch a large-scale terrorist attack on our homeland. That’s the good news. We know also that in reaction to the trauma of 9/11, our government did in some respects go too far, and in others lacked the agility and imagination to quickly adapt to an evolving threat picture.
Today, foreign-based terrorism is not the principal threat to our homeland. As tracked by the Anti-Defamation League and others, acts of violence in the U.S. by domestic-based extremists now outpace those committed by foreign terrorists. Further, as I write, we are in the midst of yet another lethal Covid-19 surge. Longer term, we must address global warming and daily attacks in cyberspace.
Finally, in 2021, we must view with alarm the politically polarized, paralyzed nature of our national government. The inability of a government to effectively respond to a security crisis is itself a threat. I worry that, in today’s political environment, our government could not rally itself or the American people to mobilize behind a national response to another 9/11. For proof of this, one need look no further than our current national response to the Covid-19 pandemic. Tragically, Americans’ attitudes toward Covid and the necessary response have broken down along partisan lines. Many deny the obvious life-saving advantage of the vaccine. As a result, the latest surge in deaths exists almost entirely among the unvaccinated. It didn’t have to be this way.
On 9/11 I rededicated myself to returning to a role in national security. On this 20th anniversary, my wish for our nation is that the American people rededicate themselves to our national interests. Our survival as a great nation depends on this.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of The Bureau of National Affairs, Inc. or its owners.
Jeh Charles Johnson is litigation partner at Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison LLP. He served as Secretary of Homeland Security (2013-2017), general counsel of the Department of Defense (2009-2012), general counsel of the Department of the Air Force (1998-2001), and as an assistant U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York (1989-1991).